Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on December 9, 2018 for the second Sunday of Advent
[sermon begins after two Bible readings]
Luke 3:1-6 In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, 2 during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3 He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4 as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. 5 Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; 6 and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’ ”
Luke 1:68-79 “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them. 69 He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David, 70 as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, 71 that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us. 72 Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant, 73 the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us 74 that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear, 75 in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. 76 And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, 77 to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. 78 By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, 79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
“Are you ready?” This question sends our dog Sunny into whirls of delight – 50 pounds of puppy love wrapped in black and brown fur bounding to and fro; warm brown eyes lit up with excitement; mouth hanging open in a big smile. She doesn’t know what she’s ready to do but she knows that her moment is about to change into something good. Usually, “are you ready” means a walk is in her immediate future. If Rob is home, the question sends her racing back and forth between him and me. Sunny’s looking for signs of preparation to be sure that the right shoes go on and, this time of year, for coats and hats and gloves. Just a glimpse of the fanny pack that holds the special bags for said walk confirms her hopes and solidifies her dreams. “Are you ready?” Such a simple question leading to the delight of watching her joy. “Are you ready?” Our reaction to that question depends entirely on the circumstances. At this time of year we often hear it as, “Are you ready for Christmas?”
Some of you, I know, are all over it. Halls decked. Presents wrapped. Cards sent. Menus planned. You name it and you’re on it. You’re like my dog Sunny who delights in readiness. Some of you, I may have lost altogether when I asked the question, “Are you ready for Christmas?” But I’m going to ask you to stay with me. I promise, there’s no scorecard here. That’s just a personality quiz. What I want to highlight, though, is something one of my young colleagues talks about and that is one kind of experience of the lights, decorations, and songs of the season. For my colleague, those experiences are moments of peace, glimmering reminders of God, that give our internal Judgy McJudgersons the boot and shift our Advent waiting and preparation. I know it did mine when it was everything I could do to hang stockings with care since losing my mother-in-law a week and a half ago. My colleague’s suggestion to see these cultural symbols of Christmas as reminders of God with us shifted my experience of preparation.
In the Luke reading, John the Baptist calls on people to prepare for the Lord, using the words of the prophet Isaiah. John says:
“Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
We Coloradans may not like the sound of lowering the mountains or filling valleys. We may like our trails crooked and rough, thank you very much. Or we may see the magnitude of the metaphor and think preparing is futile. But John is talking about open access for everyone. All flesh. All people seeing what God has done – the saving that God is doing in our transformation before and by God through the power of the Holy Spirit. The first three chapters of Luke’s Gospel are full of people who are full of the Holy Spirit.
Our psalm today in worship is actually from Luke’s first chapter. Psalms are a form of song and poetry in the Bible. They aren’t necessarily a location in one book of the Bible. In our psalm today, Zechariah prophecies by the power of the Holy Spirit. The opening verse to the psalm, verse 67, goes like this, “Then [John’s] father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy…” Zechariah then speaks the psalm chanted in worship today. Zechariah prophecies while filled with the Holy Spirit.
On the fourth Sunday in Advent, we’ll hear about John’s mother, Elizabeth, verse 41 – “And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry [to Mary], ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.’” On that same Sunday, verses 35 and 38 talk about Mary’s obedience to God’s will by the power the Holy Spirit. Then there’s John the Baptist himself, verse 15, “…even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit.” Two of my favorite Bible characters are Simeon and Anna – both elderly prophets in the Jerusalem Temple. In Luke chapter 2, verses 25 and 27, the Holy Spirit rested on Simeon and he was guided by the Spirit to prophecy as Anna praised God and talked about Jesus to everyone in earshot.
The Holy Spirit is more than a theme in the Gospel of Luke. The Holy Spirit is a major actor in the story. The Holy Spirit was filling people up and they had a lot to say about what God was doing for an oblivious world. One could argue that the Holy Spirit prepared each one of those people and then they said something about God. It wasn’t always tidy or easy though. Zechariah, our psalmist and John the Baptist’s father, had a tough time on the way to his prophecy by the power of the Holy Spirit. He didn’t believe that he and Elizabeth would have the baby John at their advanced age. The angel Gabriel pushed the mute button on him and Zechariah couldn’t make a peep until John was born. His first worlds after John’s birth are found in his psalm.
Why does any of this matter? Because this is the selfsame Spirit that empowers and refines us through the water of baptism. The selfsame Spirit who feeds us holiness through bread and wine. The selfsame Spirit who open our eyes to God’s action on our behalf so that we see, talk, and act in the world differently. The selfsame Spirit who prepares us, who fills valleys, flattens mountains, and who straightens and levels the way – the way of God to us through Jesus.
Preparation by the Spirit who also opens our eyes to see as Zechariah saw as he described it like this:
“By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
Zechariah prophesied in the temple about God’s promises that fill us, transforming our lives by the power of the Holy Spirit. The promises of God’s mercy, redemption, holiness, and peace in Jesus. Zechariah reminds us that as the world gets loud and busy, time together in sacred space allows us to pause together and be prepared by the One for whom we wait. We are prepared to see light in the darkness and in the shadow of death as our feet are guided into the way of peace. By the power of the Holy Spirit, we are given eyes to see and ears to listen to Jesus who prepares us by his Spirit whether we’re old and faithful like Simeon and Anna, young and obedient like Mary, joyful and diligent like Elizabeth, dubious and dunderheaded like Zechariah, or wild and outspoken like John. Jesus prepares us during this time with the power of the Holy Spirit. Thanks be to God. And amen.